Northern Sinfonia reviewed by The Guardian
Northern Sinfonia at Sage Gateshead
Alfred Hickling, The Guardian ***
The Swiss conductor Mario Venzago has described the Northern Sinfonia as “a very tough little big small orchestra”, which makes them sound like a hatchback. But the programme for the opening concert of the 2009/10 season did seem designed to test the limit of what this moderately sized chamber orchestra can achieve. This was an exhaustive, even bizarrely sequenced evening: beginning with a Mendelssohn overture, moving on to some early Sibelius and concluding with Brahms’s late Double Concerto by way of Haydn’s Surprise symphony – which proved excellent value for money, while raising concerns about whether the audience would make the last bus home.
It also meant a long wait for the one truly outstanding item of the programme. Brahms’s final orchestral work, the Double Concerto for Violin and Cello, doesn’t get performed all that often, perhaps because it relies so heavily on teamwork that neither soloist gets to take the starring role. But the outstanding young Latvian violinist, Baiba Skride, and the mesmerising French-Russian cellist, Sol Gambetta, seemed entirely at ease sharing the limelight. The pair span out what amounted to a sensuous, wordless duet; co-ordinating everything from a softly expressive bowing approach to matching crimson outfits. Sibelius’s dense, dark Lemminkainen Suite also saw the Sinfonia punching above its weight, as Venzago conjured a combination of rich authority and fine articulation that belied the number of players on the platform. It sounds peculiar, but Venzago has expressed an ambition to introduce the Northern Sinfonia to the early symphonies of Bruckner. Now that would be a big-small challenge and a half.